The Rockets' win may serve as a precursor to a bigger showdown between the two in late spring.
It may only be early March but there were still a few lessons to be learned.
• Look out West, a new contender is in town. The Rockets’ growth hasn’t come without its bumps and bruises, but in dispatching the Heat, Houston emerged as a dangerous, and legitimate, threat to reach the Finals. Not only does GM Daryl Morey’s creation have the superstars to counter the Duncans and Durants out West, it has the developing support players that can make a difference in a game or series.
Dwight Howard hasn’t quite rediscovered his MVP-worthy form, but relatively quietly has been the paint-filler the Rockets needed for their wide array of perimeter options. Howard’s presence wasn’t dominant against the Heat. It was comforting, though. James Harden struggling to connect? Kick it in to Howard for an attempt near the basket. Need some space for Chandler Parsons to slice through the lane? There’s nothing like a 10-footer to clear a path. Facing an undersized front line? Twenty-two points and 16 boards offered a meaningful advantage in the box score.
Equally important, Howard has allowed for the likes of Patrick Beverly and Terrence Jones to become key contributors. Both were crucial against Miami. Beverly was at his annoying best, hounding Miami into turnovers, racing the ball up the floor and spotting up for open threes, all while keeping the Rockets engaged as the Heat made surge after surge. Jones, who has become a sort of personal barometer for Houston (the Rockets are 26-3 when he scores 10 or more), was sneaky effective, hitting jumpers and sliding toward the basket for a game-high four offensive rebounds (and 12 overall).
Add in Chandler Parsons and the Rockets have a starting five as well-rounded as any in the league. The problem is what’s behind that group, a bench that was outscored by Miami’s second unit 47-15. Houston’s bench made a habit all night of handing away solid leads only to force the starters back in to regain control. Of course, Miami’s bench was nothing special in its first year of the Big 3. Time and success will help Morey build a reliable reserve corps. Until then, he’ll have to bank on rotations shrinking and minutes being stretched for starters in the spring. But if the Rockets can stretch, they have an outside shot at June.
• Miami is a lot more than the Big 3. Not to downplay the importance of the James-Wade-Bosh partnership, but Miami’s secret is that it has fostered a system of success akin to that of the Spurs. True, the opportunities Michael Beasley and Chris Andersen find are due in no small part to the presence of another star on the floor, but credit them for knowing what to do with those chances.
Beasley was a model of efficiency Tuesday, taking smart shots when he wasn’t driving into the lane to find someone cutting toward the hoop. Andersen again proved to be the modern version of the Bulls’ Dennis Rodman, attacking the glass, blocking five shots and keeping the ball moving on offense.
With familiarity comes an innate knowledge of the playbook, but it is to Erik Spoelstra’s credit that the Heat still adhere to that playbook and its principles – contest every possession, attack the basket and keep moving. That’s why someone such as Shane Battier still proves crucial with his willingness to chase after blocks and Mario Chalmers is still valued for his defensive hands even if it comes with a handful of brain cramps. Unlike their first season together, two titles have given the Heat a comfort in their own skin. They know what it is. Good luck to anyone trying to stop them.
• Watch that ball. Ask almost anyone in NBA analytics and they will tell you the most underappreciated statistic in the game is turnovers, and Tuesday offered a prime example why. The Rockets coughed up the ball 18 times to hand Miami 23 points, and on the second night of a back-to-back on the road those turnovers kept the Heat within range all night. The carelessness with which the Rockets regularly threw the ball into the Heat’s quick hands was alarming. It wasn’t surprising considering Houston ranked 29th entering the night in making turnovers, but it was disturbing for a team with designs on a deep postseason run. There are plenty of shooters in Houston; perhaps it would be wise to fire and miss and bank on the plethora of rebounders than try to make the extra pass and lose a possession altogether. Miami, as it has throughout the LeBron era, feasts on turnovers, and showed against Houston that even when it can’t generate much from three-point range, it can create plenty of easy scores. And more often than not, when Miami runs, it wins.